Population Control Movement

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1952

As early as the 1920s, some notable philanthropists were strong backers of measures to reduce births among poor individuals. John Rockefeller Senior, Junior, and the Third were all strong supporters of the eugenics movement, as was George Eastman. But funding by elite philanthropists for population control, particularly abroad where growth was fastest, really ramped up starting in 1952.

At that time, John Rockefeller III created the Population Council, an influential information and lobbying group whose first administrator, appointed by Rockefeller, was Frederick Osborn, founder of the American Eugenics Society and trustee of the eugenics-promoting Pioneer Fund. Almost immediately after, the Ford Foundation made its first grant for population control, and by the late 1950s Ford was dispensing million-dollar grants to this cause. Throughout the Population Council’s first 23 years, Ford provided $94 million. JDRIII had launched the Population Council with $100,000 from his personal fortune after his grandfather’s foundation had rebuffed repeated entreaties to fund birth control for poor and overseas populations. But by 1963 the Rockefeller Foundation got into the game itself in a big way.

With America’s two biggest foundations having paved the way, the government followed next into population control. In 1959, President Eisenhower had said he “could not imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity.” But after Dean Rusk (who ran the Rockefeller Foundation from 1952 to 1960) became President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of State, John Rockefeller III pressed him to make birth control a federal cause. Johnson soon delivered the first characterization, in a speech to the nation, of population growth as a problem, and by 1965 there was an Office of Population within the U.S. Agency for International Development. In seven years its budget exploded from $10 million per year to $123 million.

Even as government support for population control mushroomed, select elite philanthropists continued to pour money into the crusade. The list of individual donors and foundations who devoted large funding to the cause includes not just Rockefeller, Ford, Eastman, and Osborn, but also Milbank, Mellon, MacArthur, Packard, Hewlett, Turner, Buffett, and Gates. They put their money into everything from the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, to research and distribution of new contraceptives, to establishment of activist organizations and academic centers at universities like Michigan, North Carolina, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Even after eugenics was completely discredited, and the “population bomb” had fizzled as an issue, America’s large private donors were still putting on the order of $150 million per year into population-control grants in the early years of the new millennium.